America’s not so smooth transition to Biden’s administration is a reminder that at the end of the day, a country, with all its institutions, belongs to the people who inhabit it. And that, as Abraham Lincoln once said, whenever the people shall grow weary of the existing government, they can exercise their constitutional right of amending it or their revolutionary right to dismember or overthrow it. Such is the power of people once they realize that the real power rests with them and not with any government or any of its civilian or military institution.
This realization, however, seems to be missing from Pakistan, even as some may point to change of hands in Islamabad twice since Pakistan’s last dictatorship ended a little over a decade ago. Weak government, weak rule of law, and poor public service delivery in the face of disenfranchised citizens who know not of their civil and political rights and liberties, nor how to exercise it, is symptomatic of thin realization of peoples’ power.
In such an environment, some champions of change try to fill the gaps in the delivery of public goods in Pakistan. In the case of education crisis there are the likes of TCF schools; in the case of health there are the likes of AKRSP, Edhi, Chhipa and scores of other non-profits, who are all doing tremendous work. Then there are a handful of think tanks such as the SDPI, Prime Institute, and PILDAT, trying to bring about improvements in Pakistan’s socio-economic affairs by influencing government policy and action.
Meanwhile, for selfish reasons or altruistic, bi-lateral and multilateral agencies have been trying to bring about institutional changes in the country over the last many decades; all to no or little avail. Then there are organizations like Acumen Fund Pakistan and Seed Ventures that support social enterprises or for-profit solutions for the country’s socio-economic problems, whereas in recent times there has been a growing trend toward tech-based solutions, apps, portals, and others.
Yet with all the good intentions behind such organizational and individual efforts, Pakistan’s socio-economic indicators are only worsening; or in cases they are improving, the efforts are not really moving the needle. Consider the case of TCF, which is doing a tremendous job; but with all its efforts, millions and millions are still out of school in Pakistan. It’s great to educate a child from Balochistan’s poorest district and see her graduate out of Harvard University ten years later, and then cherish her contribution to fund education for 6000 children. But it still does not move the needle, given the scale of Pakistan’s education challenge. The same is the case of health, water, sanitation, and other challenges.
A new mobile app-based solution to supply education and health services would still be limited to those who have phone/smartphone, have cheap internet access, and ability and comfort level to use it. And even if these services are supplied at subsidized rates to the poor, what about other public goods, such as water, sanitation, and road infrastructure. And how can subsidized public goods be provided by the private sector when its common knowledge that it’s not a sustainable way of doing things.
What is instead needed is systemic change, for which Pakistan must not wait half a century on the sham premise that ‘oh well, 70 years is nothing in the life of a nation’. For those who didn’t get the memo: time is not anyone’s side; this is the 21st century and not the 16th or even the 20th when one could wait five or seven decades to witness change. The challenges of burgeoning population, fast evolving technology and fast changing climate alone demand fast track change; let alone the scale of Pakistan’s other challenges.
Instead of only providing education, health, water, etc. through individual/organizational charity, it would be far more prudent to instill three most important ideas of human development in the hearts and minds of the people: (a) the idea that the fate of the people lies in their own hands and that political parties, government servants and its various institutions ought to be answerable and accountable to the people; (b) an actionable knowledge of civic and political rights, including knowing the role and responsibilities of local, provincial and federal governments, knowing how to demand those rights and how to lead and participate in social change; and (c) that today’s day and age requires people to be in constant pursuit of learning, unlearning and perhaps even re-learning with greater emphasis on logic.
Understandably, the first two of these are areas that neither social enterprises nor NGOs want to touch with a ten-foot pole. But they should know well that unlike the skill of mathematics, language, or any other vocational skill, the spillover effect of the above mentioned easily transferable ideas is far more, especially considering the force of social media. It’s far easier for one person to instill these ideas into many persons through his thoughts, words and action than for the same person to teach mathematics to many persons.
Once people realise that they are the real force of change, then they will themselves seek solutions to all other problem statements that Pakistan has – water, climate change, health, education etc. – instead of waiting for hand-outs or waiting for a messiah. Hopefully, the next hackathon in Pakistan would solely focus on political development and social change, for these are prerequisites of economic development.